SIPs and Sustainability in Residential Architecture

Sustainable home design is top of mind for many homeowners and those who are looking to build new or remodel. One of the ways to create a high performing and energy efficient home is using SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) for framing and insulation.

If you’re interested in building with SIPs, you’ve come to the right place. We’re talking about all things SIPs, including how they’re made, their pros and cons, and a new KGA project that includes them.

Table of Contents

SIP Quick Facts

  • SIPs are made by laminating a piece of insulating foam core between two layers of oriented strand board (OSB)
  • SIPs create an airtight building envelope and are 50% more energy efficient than traditional wood stud framing
  • SIPs reduce uncontrolled air intrusion and thermal bridging that can create condensation, mold, and mildew. Panels are fabricated in an offsite and controlled environment, require less energy to manufacture, and produce less construction waste
  • SIPs are compatible with any architectural style and offer the best insulation and performance for structures with simple massing

What Are SIPs?

SIPs are a type of building material that replaces traditional wood stud framing. They’re fabricated with an insulating foam core that’s sandwiched between two pieces of structural sheathing and then laminated for structural integrity and durability.

Panels can be used in residential and light commercial walls, floors, and roofs. Panels are manufactured in a factory-controlled environment and are not subject to weather conditions like onsite framing. Panel construction is customized per project with precise dimensions and cuts that offer several sustainable and energy-efficient benefits to both the builder and homeowner. 

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) are made by laminating a piece of insulating foam core between two layers of oriented strand board (OSB)

SIP Features & Benefits

Thanks to their factory fabrication and how they’re made and assembled, SIPs offer considerable earth-friendly benefits.

Consistent interior air temperature

SIPs custom panel sizes and cuts mean joints are tight, offering an airtight home with minimal opportunities for outside air to affect indoor air temperatures. SIP R-values (a measure of thermal resistance) range between R-15 and R-55 depending on the panel’s thickness, higher on average compared to the R-19 to R-21 range of wood stud framing.

More energy efficient

Another benefit to an airtight home with better insulation is less reliance on an HVAC system to keep it warm or cool. SIP’s foam core offers superior performance compared to onsite insulation installation which can leave gaps vulnerable to heat transfers. As a result, a home’s HVAC requirements can be downsized to reduce its energy usage.

Less embodied energy

Embodied energy is a sustainable building term and is the sum of all the energy that’s required in a home’s life cycle from raw materials through demolition. SIPs reduce a home’s overall embodied energy to create a structure that’s healthier for the environment.

Reduction in labor costs

SIPs are fabricated to size and then shipped ready to assemble, reducing onsite labor costs by 55%.

Less construction waste

Traditional lumber framing is assembled on the jobsite and can create a considerable amount of construction waste from imprecise cuts and mistakes. Because SIPs are made to measure, precise dimensions and cuts result in significantly less waste that ends up in landfills.

Exceeds any jurisdictional minimum requirements for energy efficiency

SIPs always meet and often exceed local minimum requirements for energy efficiency. Local jurisdictions are adopting green code language in their building codes, Colorado included, and SIPs may help meet them depending on their specific requirements. SIPs can also help meet LEED certification requirements as well as create a net zero energy home.

SIP Challenges

No building material or construction method is without its potential drawbacks, and SIPs are no different. Several construction elements require re-consideration to accommodate how SIPs are designed and installed in a home.

A tighter building envelope requires a mechanical ventilation system

SIPs create a home that is impressively airtight. While SIPs regulate interior temperatures and are more energy efficient, they do require a mechanical ventilation system to circulate fresh air and prevent trapped moisture and contaminants from building up inside. Lack of proper ventilation can result in unhealthy and even dangerous interior living conditions, including sick building syndrome among inhabitants.

The installation of home systems requires different methods

Because of SIP’s non-traditional construction and offsite fabrication, a home’s electrical system, plumbing, and HVAC need modification. 

  • Electrical systems and lighting: Conduits for pulling wire can be pre-drilled during SIP fabrication. A SIP roof can’t accommodate traditional recessed lighting, so alternative fixtures are required.
  • Plumbing: Piping should be avoided on exterior walls if the layout can accommodate. If not, a furred out wall (adding an additional stud wall to the interior) is necessary to house piping.
  • HVAC: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning must be installed in the roof or floor. If the roof and/or flooring are also SIPs, drop ceilings are an option for creating space for HVAC ductwork.

Reliable labor experienced in home construction with SIPs can be hard to find

While SIPs are relatively straightforward to assemble onsite and commonly require fewer workers, finding subcontractors with experience installing electrical, plumbing, and HVAC around them may pose a challenge depending on where you’re building.

Onsite structural changes may be impossible

Making structural changes on the fly is harder if not impossible when using SIPs. Change orders require involving the SIP fabricator and may add considerable costs and project delays depending on scheduling and shipping.

SIPs in Practice: Bow Mar Residence

Our team currently has a project under construction that is designed with SIPs. Located in the quiet and family-friendly enclave of Bow Mar, the new home design needed to accommodate local 16’ building height restrictions and work around existing mature evergreen trees.

Sustainable design and construction are a top priority for the client. Building with SIPs not only maximizes energy efficiency but also accommodates the simple yet striking contemporary architectural design. The structure’s simple massing and floorplan feature fewer corners to reduce cuts in the SIPs to maintain thermal resistance. While the exterior walls and roof are SIPs, the floor and interior walls are traditional construction, allowing room for ductwork and piping. Radiant heating will be installed instead of traditional forced heating to mitigate HVAC and SIP integration challenges.

The shallow roof pitch complies with building height restrictions and complements the vertical wood panel and board-formed concrete exterior. SIP roof panels are a benefit in areas with height requirements because the elimination of traditional trusses creates more interior volume. The panels create sloped ceilings that make rooms look larger and allow for more natural light. In the Bow Mar home, the client plans to translate the extra volume into usable living space as a loft-style bedroom for their daughter.

The Bow Mar residence is currently under construction, and we plan a full project highlight upon its completion. Stay tuned!

SIPs and Sustainable Design

Structural Insulated Panels can help build a more sustainable and energy-efficient home. And if you’re interested in passive home design or a net zero energy home, SIPs can help you achieve your goals.

Still have SIP questions? Schedule a consultation with us to discuss using SIPs for your new home.

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